The six unions organising the stoppage - the first ever worldwide strike by French diplomats - predicted a strong turnout from the ministry's 22,000 permanent and local employees, and though senior staff are likely to keep premises open many foreign missions will be unable to function as normal.

"According to the soundings we're getting, it's going well - there's a lot of support," said Danielle Vazeille of the CGT union.

In Paris, staff at the Quai d'Orsay are planning an afternoon demonstration outside the Senate in the Luxembourg gardens, where the ministry's budget for 2004 - including a 2% cut in running costs and 116 job losses - is under debate.

Unions say the squeeze on finance has become acute in the last year, with cultural programmes axed, allowances and bonuses pared to a minimum, restrictions on foreign travel, and basic maintenance work at the ministry and foreign embassies ignored.

Grand ambitions

Some officials also query whether too much money is being spent on high-profile travel by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, at the expense of the ministry's routine work.

"Employees do not understand how the president of the republic and the government can proclaim their grand ambitions for France on the international scene while at the same time the human and financial resources available to the ministry are constantly declining," six unions said in a statement.

"There isn't a kopeck at the ministry. Half of the lifts are out of order because there's no money to mend them. During the paper shortage we had to bar people from the photocopier"

Yvan Sergesse, UNSA union

The lack of resources was embarrassingly exposed last month when the company that supplies the ministry with paper refused to make a new delivery until its account was cleared.

Staff were deprived of writing materials for three days and European Affairs Minister Noelle Lenoir had to buy her own notepads.

"There isn't a kopeck at the ministry. Half of the lifts are out of order because there's no money to mend them. During the paper shortage we had to bar people from the photocopier. Abroad staff are working up to 14 hours a day," said Yvan Sergesse of the UNSA union.

On Thursday evening de Villepin - himself a career diplomat - took the unusual step of addressing a meeting of several hundred employees at the Quai d'Orsay, in which he conceded that "circumstances are difficult" and promised to give the strikers' grievances full consideration.

But he said modernisation was essential. "We have to show ourselves capable of changing our working habits, organising ourselves differently, opening up to the ideas of others. I know this ministry can do it if it is properly mobilised, and I am counting on you to go forward," he said.

Paperless palace

From its lavish 19th century palace looking over the river Seine, France's foreign ministry oversees an international network second only to that of the United States. In addition to 154 embassies there are 98 consulates, and nearly 500 cultural offices and French-language schools.

Officials are looking at potential savings, notably in Europe where an increasingly integrated and expanding EU makes the presence of nine consulates in Germany, for example, hard to justify.

Cultural sections - the Alliances Françaises of foreign capitals - could be made to merge with consulates.

"The foreign ministry has got to do its bit for the budgetary effort agreed by the whole of the government for 2004," said a senior diplomat. "But we can still keep our essential fields of action to spread French influence and interests abroad."

In next year's budget the ministry is to get 4.2 billion euros ($5 billion), or 1.25% of state spending. Unions say the number of posts has been reduced by 10% in the last 10 years. Currently there are 3900 staff employed in Paris and 5300 abroad.